TAMPA — Hillsborough County has poured millions of tax dollars over the past 20 years into a program meant to cover rent for homeless people.
But county leaders can't say for sure whether the landlords they paid actually housed anyone.
A computer system tracks rent checks paid each month under the Homeless Recovery program. The system, though, does not record the addresses where tenants are supposed to be living.
As a result, Hillsborough officials acknowledged, they have no way to verify where tenants stayed in a given month without hand-checking each case file, a process they estimated would take hundreds of hours.
County spokeswoman Lori Hudson confirmed the records-keeping gap this week to the Tampa Bay Times, which has for weeks sought a list of rental properties that have housed clients of the embattled Homeless Recovery agency.
Hudson said the record-keeping flaw is hampering efforts to review basic details about thousands of rent payments made over the years. County officials have been trying to piece together two separate databases to compile the information.
"We're talking about dueling, different systems, and that's what we're dealing with," Hudson told the Times on Wednesday. "That's the challenge in all of this, is the antiquated system."
Homeless Recovery was created in 1989 to help the homeless get into housing. The agency — which has a $1.2 million budget, including $806,500 in county money — came under scrutiny after the Times reported on Sept. 8 that case workers sent people to the squalid, makeshift mobile home park owned by William "Hoe" Brown, a prominent Republican fundraiser and former chairman of the Tampa Port Authority.
Homeless Recovery sent clients, including families, to live in tiny, dilapidated, bug-infested mobile homes and a garage Brown illegally rented out behind his office. Homeless Recovery's managers said they did not have the resources to inspect rental properties where they sent clients.
Three employees have left the county since the Times story. Homeless Recovery's manager resigned and his supervisor was fired. Another county employee who worked with the agency was fired after an investigator found he had lied about earning $1,200 through the program as a landlord.
County Administrator Mike Merrill pledged this month to start inspecting rental properties before their owners could earn county dollars. Dozens of other Homeless Recovery clients are living in substandard housing, according to Merrill. He said problems in the agency were "systemic" but offered no details.
Last week, county commissioners voted to have the county's auditor investigate Homeless Recovery. Record-keeping problems will be one focus of the audit, Hudson said.
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When informed of the problems this week, several county commissioners decried the shoddy record-keeping.
"It's outrageous that tax dollars were spent and records were not kept . . . in a way that they could be quickly or easily accessed for transparency and accountability," Commissioner Victor Crist said.
In August, the Times requested detailed payment records from the county to assess conditions at other properties that have gotten Homeless Recovery money. The list that was provided was riddled with errors. In many cases, it listed houses and apartment complexes as belonging to the wrong owners.
In subsequent interviews, county officials said it would cost thousands of dollars and take weeks of poring through its records system to find the addresses.
The county intends to replace the flawed computer system by the end of the year, Hudson said.
Merrill has declined to speak to the Times about Homeless Recovery until the county's audit, which could stretch into 2014, is complete.
Will Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.